Abrupt end to mask mandates reflects a shifting political landscape

That’s the backdrop as Murphy, long one of the nation’s most aggressive governors on health restrictions, announced this week that he was lifting New Jersey’s school mask mandate — one of a slew of governors in his party to do so as polls suggest voters are weary of restrictions and last November’s elections highlight Democrats’ vulnerability on the pandemic.

State officials say the decisions are driven by data showing that the worst of the omicron surge has passed, but acknowledge they must also weigh a weary public’s tolerance for pandemic life. Even as the Biden administration continues to recommend mask requirements, many of the biggest states led by Democrats are abruptly taking a different tack.

California, Oregon, Delaware and Connecticut joined New Jersey in announcing a partial end to mask mandates Monday. The governors of Rhode Island and Massachusetts announced plans Wednesday to end school mask mandates, while the executives of New York and Illinois said they would scrap mask requirements for businesses but are still reviewing schools. Washington announced it would end an outdoor mask mandate and the indoor mask mandate was under review.

Several of these Democratic governors have stressed that their constituents need to live with the virus, echoing rhetoric that their Republican counterparts adopted earlier in the pandemic when they declined to take statewide measures to curb the delta and omicron surges.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said residents now have the tools to keep themselves safe and cautioned that “you are not going to get an all-clear sign.” At a news conference announcing the end to a universal indoor mask mandate Friday, Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) said that “a leader without followers is not very effective leadership, so somehow you have to strike the balance there to keep people following you.”

This adds up to a pivotal moment in the politics of the pandemic. From the outset, Democrats urged public health restrictions while Republicans largely rejected them despite the science showing they would save lives. But now — with many Americans vaccinated, the public deeply impatient and the current surge fading — many Democrats are concluding that the time for aggressive statewide measures has passed and are unwilling to risk a further electoral backlash.

Some 28 percent of Americans polled by Monmouth University last month said the country would never get the outbreak under control or return to normal, up from 9 percent in March 2021.

“The governors are catching up with the realization that the public is moving on this issue,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Polling Institute at Monmouth University. “What we saw with the Murphy decision there, and being joined by other governors there as well, is the recognition that even the folks who were your stalwart supporters at the beginning of the pandemic and stuck with you are starting to question the value of keeping us on high alert.”

Support for masks policies has eroded, although it remains high. The same Monmouth poll found that 52 percent of Americans supported face mask and distancing guidelines in their state, down from a peak of 63 percent last September during the delta surge.

Still, some vulnerable or elderly Americans remain wary of dropping mask requirements, and covid deaths remain high in many places. The governors who are scrapping their state mask mandates are still allowing localities to keep them in place, signaling that conditions are improving without fully abandoning a key tool to curb transmission.

“The feeling that many people are over this and we should just say covid is endemic and be done with it has certainly gathered a lot of steam,” Oregon State Epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said. “But we have to remember even when we say endemic, that does not mean the end of covid. It means ideally covid is spreading at a level where it’s not impacting daily life in a significant way. And we are just not there now.”

Over the last several weeks, Democratic governors and their top aides engaged in conversations about how to exit the emergency phase of the pandemic, according to a person involved in the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private talks.

As governors gathered in Washington last month for the National Governors Association’s winter meeting, leaders from both parties pressed President Biden to help them navigate the next phase of the pandemic.

As blue states shed mask mandates, the Biden administration continues to proceed cautiously on changing the federal guidance. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that the guidance is under review, but for now Americans should continue to wear masks indoors in areas of high transmission, which covers much of the country.

“We are working on following the trends for the moment,” she said at the White House covid briefing. “What I will say, though, is our hospitalizations are still high. Our death rates are still high. So as we work towards that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”

Still, the administration has spent the last several weeks consulting health experts to chart a path out of the pandemic, including when and how to ease restrictions.

“We’re moving toward a time when covid won’t disrupt our daily lives, a time when covid won’t be a constant crisis, but rather will be something we can protect against and treat,” Jeff Zients, the White House covid coordinator, said Wednesday.

But as more Democratic governors move to loosen mask requirements, some administration officials are concerned about mixed messaging.

One official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said the CDC should have been better prepared to avoid confusing Americans who are receiving different guidance from their governors, the White House and possibly local leaders.

But inside the White House, officials remain fearful of abandoning restrictions and declaring victory prematurely.

Last July, Biden declared that “the virus is on the run” and vowed the country is “closer than ever to declaring our independence from this deadly virus” — only to have the delta and omicron variants send cases skyrocketing. Experts say the country is better equipped now to fight future variants, but the risk remains.

Some public health experts worry the recent moves by Democratic governors are premature when previous attempts to relax rules have been followed by a surge.

“There are tremendous pressures upon all politicians to reduce precautions that are in place, because everyone is really tired after two years of coping with this pandemic,” said Stanley Weiss, an epidemiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “The history of what’s happened in this pandemic is people relaxing their precautions because they think we’re over the hump, and that helps contribute to the resurgence.”

Others say public health authorities should be mindful of pandemic fatigue, especially to preserve their credibility if a variant even more contagious or deadlier than omicron emerges.

“These are tools that should be used thoughtfully, in part because if you don’t use them thoughtfully, people will begin not to follow them and not listen next time you say, ‘It’s time to get serious again, folks,’ ” said Robert M. Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) is expected to announce in coming days whether he will extend the state’s school mask mandate, which is set to expire Tuesday. His administration announced Monday that it would lift an indoor mask requirement at businesses and other settings for the vaccinated, reverting to pre-omicron rules that still require the unvaccinated to mask up.

Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, said the rules are being relaxed because with hospitalizations down, the health-care system no longer faces a dire threat. Public health authorities owe it to a tired public to pull back restrictions when conditions improve, he added.

“All of us have been impacted by this and are exhausted in one way or the other, and it’s important state leaders and local leaders pay attention to that level of exhaustion,” Ghaly said. “When we say we are constantly assessing, we are actually constantly assessing. That’s not lip service.”

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, commended the recent moves to roll back mask mandates. He said he is advising Democratic lawmakers and candidates to emphasize that the party has been the “responsible” one in battling the pandemic but that Democrats should avoid being “preachy.”

“The frustrations are real and should not be taken lightly,” Maloney said. “But the key is that the risks are now lower.”

Scott D. Clement, Brittany Shammas and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.